31 October 2012

The Month-Namer

As this eighth month of the year slides rapidly to a close, I’ve a bone to pick with the Namer of Months.

Of course, it isn’t the eighth month.  You’ll have observed that, in fact, we’re at the end of the tenth month, although October, from Latin octo, meaning eight, is enough to throw you off the scent.  And let’s not get started on October’s band of hapless siblings – September (seven) November (nine) and December (ten).

So why the confusion?   To its credit, the early Roman calendar of 304 days did attempt to keep things simple by decimalising the year, although this was wholly at the expense of the period we now know of as January and February, which was written off as a monthless limbo where, let's face it, not much happened.  The year actually began in March. 

And here, some effort was expended.  March, an assertive little entity, burst in named for Mars, the Roman god of war.  This was followed by the poetic idea of opening, aperire, giving us April.  May was named after the Greek fertility goddess, Maia, and June after the Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter (though Ovid suggests these two months could have been derived from maiores, the month of elders, and iuniores, the month of youth). 

But then, the Month-Namer ran plum out of ideas, stalled, and came up with the ho-hum Quintilis, (fifth month) and Sextilis, (sixth month) then seventh month, eighth month, and so on, yawn, before skipping out forever into the long afternoon, his work done.

Even when January and February - more imaginatively named for Janus, the god of the doorway, and after the purification ritual of Februa - were later parachuted in about 700 BC to allow the calendar to conform to a lunar year of 354 days, the other months simply budged up to create space and did not alter their names.   Nor did the emperors Julius and Augustus Caesar do much more than get their noses into the trough and snaffle the two premium summer months for themselves.  True, July and August are an improvement on Quintilis and Sextilis, but the aberration of the mis-named four last months remains.

When a friend studying Finnish told me the names of the months in that language, I felt both enchanted and short-changed.  Here was a language that did not resort to month-by-number, but used a different kind of logic, for example:

helmikuu – “pearl month”, possibly because melting snow on
branches can create droplets which when they refreeze are like ice pearls (our February)
heinäkuu  - “hay month” (our July)
lokakuu – “mud month” (our October)

We need only to turn to languages that do not derive entirely from Latin roots to find similar delights.  In Polish, for example, we have a calendar translated as meaning;

styczeń - touching or joining month
luty - cruel or frosty month
marzec – from the Latin Martius
kwieci – blossom month
mai – from the Latin Maius
czerwiec – carmine scale month (gathering of larvae from the insect czerw to
make red dye)
lipiec – linden or lime tree month
sierpień – sickle month
wrzesień – heather month
paźdzjernik – broken flax stalk month
listopad – leaf fall month
grudzień – frozen clod month

But, in fact, we don’t don’t have to scratch very far to find this sort of thinking in our own inheritance.  To Anglo-Saxons, February was Mud Month (solmonað).  June was drimilcemonað, Month of Three Milkings, supposedly from the longer days, succulent grasses and greater yield in the cows. 

So this week, I’d like to offer you the fun of not just thinking up more appropriate names for September, October, November and December, but creating an entirely new calendar particular to yourself.  For example, for you, August may not be connected with sickles, or February with pearls.  Think of your own associations – perhaps connected with childhood, perhaps sporting activities that you do, perhaps aspirations.  All I ask is that you try to avoid redubbing April Tax Month………

In my own very personal calendar, I’ve taken it one step further from the association with activity to thinking of one word that encapsulates and deepens this idea.  December, for me would be month of darkness but I’d like to call it Lanterns, to symbolise the notion of illumination and hope in the longer nights.  November is a month I now associate entirely with my father – the month of his birth, the month of his death, the month of remembrance.  For me it is therefore Paternus (derived from pater, meaning father).  July I’d like to call Molten, in honour of the hot, melting days I associate with that month in my Canadian childhood.  My calendar would look like this:

Moonscar – month where moon and wan skies predominate
Sanctuary – month to retreat, rethink
Reveille – month of fanfare to jolt the season awake
Groundswell – month of growth and upsurge
Roundelay – month to dance
Touchstone – month of examinations
Molten – month of humid heat, hazy hot suns
Escapade – month of holiday, letting one’s hair down
Flitsong – month with consciousness of birds, their flight, their migration
Firebrand – month of vivid red and orange leaf-fall, bonfires
Paternus – month of my father
Lanterns – month of paths through darkness

Your turn!

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